Sunday, June 18, 2006

"Swinging at Aspirins"

Those were the words of Joe "Ducky" Medwick of the St. Louis Cardinals as he struggled through a slump. In contrast, when Mickey Mantle, was asked about his uncanny ability to hit home runs, he replied: “I never really could explain it. I just saw the ball as big as a grapefruit.” All of us involved in sport have probably experienced similar circumstances. Seeming to have an endless amount of green while returning a serve down the alley in doubles, getting in a rhythm from beyond the three-point line and noticing the basket looks like a hula hoop, or putting from the fringe and having the giant cup seemingly swallow your ball.

A recent study puts some science behind these perceptions. Researchers found a correlation between batting averages of softball players and how big or small they perceived the ball to be. After games at several softball fields in Charlottesville, Va., psychologist Dennis Proffitt and a group of graduate students asked 47 players to pick from eight different-sized circles, the one that best represented the size of the ball they had been trying to hit.
"Only people who hit .500 or above pointed at the big circle," said Jessica Witt, a cognitive psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia.
The study concluded that the softball players literally see the ball as larger. "It's not in their minds. It's in perception," Witt said. What this small study suggests, according to Proffitt, is that human perception is much more complex than simple vision. It includes vision, or what’s actually recorded on the retina, but the brain then mixes that imagery with all sorts of mental and emotional baggage. For poor hitters, the ball is perceived as tiny and distant because it is “out of reach”—beyond their ability to connect with it, emotionally and actually.

The study did not reveal, however, whether the participants saw the ball as bigger and therefore hit better, or if they were having a good day at the plate and therefore recall perceiving the ball as being bigger. But Witt speculates it's all about being ready to hit well. "The body is in synch and ready to be a good batter," she said. "That affects perception."

A study last year by other researchers found similar perception differences in successful dart throwers. Another study found that destinations are perceived as being farther away when study participants wear heavier backpacks. According to Witt, "perspective and perception play a big role in what we do and how well we do it.”

The results of this study might be related to the reason many athletes visualize their performance beforehand and why sport psychologists encourage this type of behavioral rehearsal. "If you visualize yourself hitting better, maybe you'll see the ball as bigger," Witt said. In further research, she hopes to investigate whether we can trick the perception system into thinking the ball is bigger.

All of these calculations take place instantaneously and outside of one’s awareness. As Proffitt says, “A principal function of perception is to defend people from having to think.” Or as another famous Yankee, Yogi Berra, once quipped: “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” The results of this study are published in the December 2005 issue of Psychological Science. I just wanted to showcase more interesting sport psychology research that highlights that our mind (with its perceptions) is still our most important piece of athletic equipment.


Blogger oldtennisbum said...

When we talked Sunday, I told you I played better on Saturday than I have in 6 weeks. I know I was seeing the ball better, don't know if it was bigger.

6/19/2006 7:52 AM  
Blogger Amy P said...

Exactly! Note to my (previous) coaches. Once I start thinking about what I'm trying to do I can't do it! Turn your hip, step into it, elbow up, easy swing, shift your weight, point your toes, yeah, yeah, yeah. Just let me do it without thinking! I think that's why I have a "natural" golf swing (according to Barb). I don't think about it, I just swing at the ball, like how hard is it to golf? It's an internal thing, stop micro-coaching. I had read about this theory (believe it or not) years ago when I was in highschool, a hockey goally (sp?) in the NHL is able to put the puck into slow motion to stop it, I bet they see it bigger too.

An added note, I play or perform better when statistics are not involved. I don't care who wins (no for real) I like to play golf without keeping score and just "feeling" like I had a good game or it felt like an off day. Who cares how many times I whacked that ball? Same with tennis, it's too hard to concentrate on whose turn it is to serve or who hit the ball out? Or add in? what kind of number is that? Now softball or other organized games become a bit more difficult in my world. Take that Amyism and analyze it.
BTW- I am lacking smart ass remarks on my blog, did I stump you? Who's keeping score, not me? But statistically, you are behind :)

6/20/2006 3:08 PM  

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